Friday, June 12, 2009

Something We're Doing Right: University of Baltimore

Let's focus on something we're doing right to improve the future prospects of the city: The University of Baltimore. The current expansions and development at UB in the Mount Vernon/Midtown-Belvedere neighborhoods of the city are exactly the kind of change Baltimore needs to move out of its schizophrenic doldrums of half slum/half viable city.

College, when you boil it down, is a chance to prove yourself. A chance to prove that you can work within a system. A chance to prove that you can meet deadlines. A chance to prove that you can consistently show up on time. A chance to show that you care. Now hopefully those that attend also gain some knowledge in the process to prepare them for a more enlightened career in the work force. But we all know that what you learn in the real world and what you learn in college, while not mututally exclusive, are often very different. But the fact remains employers want to know their prospective employees for higher paying jobs are reliable people when they walk in for a job interview. Requiring a college degree or above for the position helps to ensure that.

Unfortunately much of the disadvantaged population of Baltimore is written off very early. The prospect of simply driving through the West Side is too much for some of the more easily frightened area residents - so I have to assume the thought of hiring someone from there is even more terrifying. Thinking that we can rid ourselves of this sort of institutionalized racism overnight is naive. But these attitudes can be overcome in a positive way that changes our urban culture for the better; by going to college.

Fortunately this is the same way that folks who are not from the West Side or other distressed neighborhoods have to prove themselves - and is therefore at least somewhat fair. What's not fair is that a disadvantaged student will not be able to attend the area's best schools unless they absolutely excel enough to get a large scholarship. But while UB may not be Johns Hopkins, it is a start, and a fine place for students to prove they're ready to achieve the next level or responsibility and pay in the work force.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Baltimore Infill Survey Proposal: Vertical Farm/Arabber Stable

The Baltimore Infill Survey is an inspired initiative from the Baltimore Office of Promotion and Arts soliciting ideas for what to do with all the vacant space in the city via images uploaded onto its Flickr photostream. The survey is completely democratic, in that anyone who sends an idea in the form of an image to the project's coordinator, Gary Kachadourian, will get it onto the web page, adding to the discussion. However, images must adhere to the format, adapting the "stock image" available on the Flickr page by adding their proposal for future development onto a vacant lot, between rowhomes.

My fanciful Baltimore Infill Survey proposal is for a Vertical Farm/Arabber stable. The poorest Baltimoreans desperately need access to better diet options. When you drive through the most economically challenged areas of the city, one of the things that sticks out the most is the lack of businesses. Poverty, crime and drugs have tragically scared many of even the most essential shops like grocery stores out of the neighborhoods on the east and west sides. The few corner stores that remain often sell only junk food, alcohol and soda turning a bad nutrition situation into a nightmare. Plus the carry out restaurants in these neighborhoods generally sell low nutrition, high fat foods like Fried Chicken and Lake Trout. Not surprisingly, the poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore - with the worst access to health care - also have the highest rates of diabetes, obesity, hypertension and heart disease.

The good news is we already have all the necessary factors to grow healthy fruits and vegetables right in our neighborhoods: sunlight, water, either from rainfall or a city water system capable of servicing a million residents in a city of 650,000, and land in the form of the vacant lots and buildings those 350,000 departed left behind. Another positive is that we still have the traditional profession of Arabbing, horse drawn produce peddlers for you non-Baltimoreans out there, who wander the city streets selling fruits and vegetables off the backs of their carts in these very same neighborhoods. Why not just combine the two while making use of some of that vacant property which currently does little more than play host to junkies and rats?

So why a tower, you ask? Can't we just grow food on the ground? Well, we can of course. But for one thing, those same junkies and rats would probably do something to foul up any urban farming initiative that took place out in the open. Just because we start an idealistic green garden doesn't mean that the real world is going to cooperate. So, as always on the east and west side, security is a major concern and could be afforded by a smartly designed, enclosed vertical tower that is staffed. But a vertical farm has other pluses in that crops could be grown all year long, instead of just during the warm months, due to its greenhouse design and smart water distribution hooked into the city water system. Perhaps even more importantly, having residents of the city's roughest neighborhoods and those who travel through them see something like a gleaming agriculture tower being built for once in such areas might even start to change some attitudes. It won't be easy. But showing people you actually care about them in terms of development can go a long way in neighborhoods that have been left off the map for over a generation now.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Where Even the Simplest Answer Gets Complicated

Even the simplest answer to the enormous drug problem that plagues Baltimore is, of course, bound to get complicated. This should come as no surprise to those who have wrapped their heads around just how big a part of the regional economy the drug "industry" accounts for. If we take for gospel truth the vague estimate that there are 50,000 heroin addicts in the City, then the reach of the local drug economy starts to become frighteningly clear.

So let's fantasize a bit and say our society actually finds a way - like a cashless society - to seriously curtail drug activity . What are those who had previously worked in the drug trade going to do for a living? These are overwhelmingly not college graduates or even high school graduates we're talking about. Many have violent backgrounds stemming from the violent world they've participated in. Removing their sole source of income could cause all sorts of other problems if not managed properly; and might turn the streets of our city into robbery and kidnapping zones more closely resembling the favelas of Rio de Janeiro or Sao Paulo or the slums of Mexico City.

This is where society needs to get smart and coordinate policy from different angles. Should we have the good fortune to find a way to phase down the drug trade in this city, educational and social services need to be in place to reform those exiting that world of criminality and easing their assimilation back into productive society. It will not be easy by any means. But if it is not done, then we could find ourselves with a whole new set of problems replacing those of yesterday.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The Simplest Answer to the Drug Problem

The simplest answer to the enormous drug problem which envelopes our city will probably not happen anytime soon, but it deserves consideration and discussion nonetheless. Let's start off by agreeing, as most conscious Americans have for over two decades now, that the "War on Drugs" is an absolute failure. Our national strategy towards stamping out drug use has had virtually no effect on what goes on in the real world. We have neither the manpower, resources, nor prison space to stop the drug trade by using aggressive police enforcement. It's not like we haven't tried; America has more people locked up in prison than any other country on Earth, and the plurality (the most of any category of crime) of those prisoners are being held for drug related offenses. But the drug trade continues, unabated, with the hits it takes from law enforcement just part of the cost of doing business - especially in Baltimore. What we need to truly combat this problem is a gamechanger, something that will throw all the cards up in the air and let them fall, hopefully in the stack of a more functional society. The quickest and most effective way to achieve this is a cashless society.

Why do we still have cash? The information technology networks that allow virtually everyone to use "credit or debit" at virtually every retail business in America are now fully developed. We all know people who voluntarily choose to rarely use cash simply as a matter of convenience, so they don't have to make that extra step trip to the ATM machine. Large purchases, such as houses, business to business transactions etc have not used cash for decades or even centuries because of security concerns over the risk of currency notes being robbed. Person to person transactions on monies owed can easily be accomplished through bank transfers or PayPal. So why are we still using this stuff? So some restaurants, bars and nightclubs and their employees can cheat on their taxes? So we can continue to pay illegal immigrants off the books? To keep a drug trade alive that relies on cash transactions?

Now typically when you hear this idea brought up, a standard reply heard is "Somebody will just figure out a way to do it without cash.” I have no doubt someone will. But I do doubt that person will be Dave the Dopefiend or Sam the Smack Dealer. Now it’s worth mentioning that in our current drug economy people further up the ladder have found a way to launder their cash and turn it into real income that can be used for large purchases such as houses, cars, investments etc. A cashless economy would push this need for money laundering further down the totem pole however, onto street level dealers and more importantly, run of the mill drug users who are not exactly known for their information technology prowess when it comes to covering up electronic trails. The results would be apocalyptic for the drug trade as we know it, and while it most likely would not eliminate it entirely, it would push drug dealers off the street corners (where you can’t use debit card machines) and into cyberspace, a realm that would be frankly much easier to investigate and prosecute than the current guerilla warfare set up of law enforcement we have on the east and west sides of Charm City.

Two interesting case studies that parallel what I’m talking about are the prostitution and pornography businesses. Both of these businesses have largely and voluntarily gone electronic since the mass adoption of the Internet in the mid 1990’s. The result is that you rarely see a street walking prostitute in a major city anymore, whereas pre-Internet they were everywhere. It’s also increasingly hard to find Red Light districts littered with sex shops when people can simply find pornography and erotic products online. Even The Block, Baltimore’s own Mecca of sleaze , is a skeleton of its former self due to the migration of its business onto the web. The introduction, at long last, of a cashless economy would push drugs off the streets as well, minimize their sale to transactions between only the most enterprising and electronically savvy dealers and buyers, and make it much, much easier to detect drug activity and prosecute it through the use of the electronic trail.

There will be business practices and aspects of our lives that change in a cashless America, of course. Marijuana users, for instance, are going to be pissed that the coke and heroin dealers fucked it up for everyone else by necessitating on the books transactions. But perhaps this will allow for a more real democracy. If people really want to smoke pot, then they should vote for candidates that push to legalize it. As it is now, we have entire shadow portions of our economy that never come up for consideration in the public square, simply because it's easier to pursue them off the books with cash money.

So why won’t it happen? People are stuck in their ways for one and despite voting Barack Obama President during a financial crisis, are resistant to major change at a base level. We all know that if a cashless society was seriously proposed by a politician, the blowhards would come out in full force, with some conservative prick saying it would be government taking away our “freedoms” or some liberal prick saying that government would pry too much into our lives without the shield of $100 or $200 worth of paper in each of our pockets to save us. But putting these knee jerk reactions aside, a cashless society would go a long way toward preventing and disabling the drug trade and myriad other crimes from taking place. It should be given serious consideration. Preferably after a walk around the West Side of Baltimore.

Saturday, May 16, 2009

The Problems: This Commercial

We already knew WBFF Fox 45 had no shame. Apparently they have no decency either (and no money for production value).

Monday, May 11, 2009

Who Wants to Live in Baltimore?

One of the most obvious issues affecting the very survival of the city itself is the loss of residents it has steadily experienced since the height of its population in the 1950's. During World War II, people flocked in droves to industrial centers like Baltimore, stretching infrastructure and overcrowding neighborhoods, with no relief throughout the War due to the moratorium on new building put in place by FDR's Administration to ensure all resources and labor went directly to the war effort. The result for Baltimore was a population in 1950 just shy of 1 Million people.

Since that peak the growth of the city's population has declined decade after decade, with the possible exception (hints are often given off by officials in the press that the stats are being juked) of the current decade we're living in. Today the population of the city according to census estimates is around 637,000 residents, a 32% drop from 1950. The reasons are simple enough:

  • The tense racial situation alone in the city scares the shit out of many residents.
  • The city school system is generally considered an unmitigated disaster, necessitating the common big city expenditure for private school for those who want to both remain in the city and provide their kids with a good education.
  • The erosion of much of the tax base of the city over the past 50+ years has made for jaw dropping property taxes, over double those found in the neighboring County, which, by the way, provide for worse social services than those found in Baltimore County.
  • "Did you know we have high crime?" as the waitress at Matthew's Pizza told a new doe-eyed transplant from Boston, in a glorious Baltimore accent.
So who would want to live in Baltimore given these conditions? Let's make a list:
  • Young people, in their 20's and 30's, with no kids yet, who rent apartments (no property taxes) and want to be near Big City cultural venues and the social and romantic opportunities afforded by urban nightlife.
  • College students.
  • Gays and Lesbians who look to the city for a more tolerant attitude toward their lifestyle. The city has done a poor job in reaching out to this community however, making neighboring Washington DC, Philadelphia and New York all more attractive options.
  • Rich people who send their kids to Gilman or Boys' Latin, could frankly give a damn about property taxes, get in a huff about people taking their park away but not about sky high murder rates and live in a world resembling an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel in Roland Park or Guilford.
  • People who don't know any better. Take a walk around Hampden and you'll find plenty. Many of whom are in their teens and can be seen pushing baby carriages, smoking and getting into domestic quarrels on The Avenue.
  • Resident physicians at city hospitals who fear they'll fall asleep at the wheel if they opt to commute in from the County.
  • Drug dealers who enjoy and profit off the easy access to the area's many junkies.
  • Junkies who enjoy the easy access to the area's many drug dealers.
  • People who can't afford to move.
  • People who really, really love the city.
Have any to add to the list? Post them in the comments section.

Thanks to The Real Estate Wonk...

I wanted to thank poster MCG for his rec and Jamie Smith Hopkins of The Baltimore Sun's The Real Estate Wonk blog for her recent shout out about us.

Apologies to those who have been following us. I've been busy traveling to other cities recently for work which has devoured most of my time. But I promise more to come...starting tonight.